The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why people hated permanent daylight saving time when the U.S. last tried it

A Seth Thomas post clock at Electric Time Company in Medfield, Mass., in October 2020. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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It was still dark when most Americans set off for work and school the morning of Jan. 7, 1974. Commuters grumbled about having to descend to the subways and report to work without glimpsing the sun. Some kids carried flashlights on their way to school.

One woman was so overwhelmed, she simply went back to bed.

“It’s the end,” Terry Minz, of Long Island, N.Y., told the New York Times. “I can’t cope anymore. The comet, the energy crisis, now darkness. I’m just staying in bed.”

So it went the last time the United States took a run at year-round daylight saving time. The experiment, which meant a sunrise of 8:30 a.m. or later for large swaths of the nation, proved short-lived. Amid a swell of public displeasure and a series of early-morning traffic fatalities, Congress voted to undo the change 10 months in.

Almost 50 years later, the idea is back. The Senate voted this week to end the twice-annual practice of “springing forward” and “falling back,” setting the stage for daylight saving time to last all year. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-author of the bill, called it “an idea whose time has come.”

Senate votes unanimously to make daylight saving time permanent

Lawmakers from both parties championed the legislation, which still requires passage by the House of Representatives and a signature from President Biden. They argued that the clock-changing ritual carries health and safety risks. And, they pointed out, many Americans hate it.

“Today the Senate has finally delivered on something Americans all over the country want — to never have to change their clocks again,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), another co-author.

That was true the last time, too. At least in the beginning.

When federal officials pitched the concept, the nation was in the grips of an energy crisis because of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declaring an oil embargo. Grasping for solutions, lawmakers made daylight saving time permanent from January 1974 until October 1975. Clocks would “spring forward” and not “fall back” for almost two years.

The thinking was that fuel consumption would go down as Americans used the extra evening sunshine for heat and light. President Richard M. Nixon estimated that 150,000 barrels of oil could be saved a day, the New York Times reported.

Signing the bill into law, he said it would “mean only a minimum of inconvenience.” Seventy-nine percent of Americans favored the change at the time, according to polling by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Then it went into effect.

Daylight saving time: Explaining the century-old debate

On Day One, the New York Times reported, hundreds of tourists missed flights from Puerto Rico, which remained on standard time, to the continental United States. Throughout the week, newspapers carried reports of bleary-eyed commuters and nervous parents. “Daylight time is like darkness time,” declared a headline in The Washington Post. The New York Times called it “the Second Dark Age.”

“Pitch black at 7:30 in the morning,” a Long Island man named Bob Fitzpatrick told the Times. “People were saying if this had happened two years ago, McGovern would be President today.”

He spotted dawn only briefly on his way to work as a Lord & Taylor executive and was “depressed as hell,” he added.

David Prerau studied the issue as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Transportation and went on to write a book about it, “Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.” He said in an interview that the reality of the change seemed to take people by surprise.

“Most people think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to have to change my clock,’ ” he said. “And they don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to have four months of dark mornings.’ I think that’s what happened in ’74. People didn’t think about that.”

Sleep experts say Senate has it wrong: Standard time, not daylight saving, should be permanent

Frustration over the shift took on a new sense of urgency when reports emerged of children being hit and killed by cars during predawn treks to school. After eight deaths in Florida, Gov. Reubin Askew (D) called a special legislative session Jan. 27, urging state lawmakers to change back the clocks.

Though Florida would be on a different schedule than the rest of the Eastern Seaboard, the governor told United Press International that any disruption “would be small indeed when compared to the life of even a single child whose death could be attributed to a too-early start of his or her school day.”

The move failed, caught up in partisan politics. The clocks stayed an hour ahead in Florida and in other states.

Some schools pushed back their start times; some cities bought reflective signs for crosswalks, according to news reports. The Post ran a story on “inventive Washington mothers improvising outerwear” from fluorescent fabrics, complete with photographs of kids wearing their handiwork at bus stops. The article noted that some companies planned to offer jackets with reflective detailing in their back-to-school lines.

As the dark mornings continued, the complaints kept coming.

By February, Congress was having regrets.

“The time to admit a mistake is when you’ve made one,” Rep. William Ketchum (R-Calif.), a co-author of the bill, was quoted as saying in the Times.

That month, a National Safety Council survey found no appreciable change in the number of early-morning fatalities between January 1973 and January 1974. And a Reuters report said the United States had used about 2 percent less energy because of the change.

How permanent daylight saving time would change sunrise and sunset times

Still, the country was ready to go back to the old times. Public support for the extended daylight saving time had plummeted to 42 percent, according to NORC. In August, the same month Nixon resigned over Watergate, the Senate voted to repeal the law. The House passed a similar measure soon after.

On Oct. 5, President Gerald Ford signed it, and three weeks later, Americans rolled back their clocks. The semiannual routine returned and has continued ever since.

People always grouse about losing an hour of sleep in the spring. Prerau wasn’t surprised that doing away with it came up again. As for whether it’ll last, he isn’t sure.

“It’s a different time,” he said. “On the other hand, daylight and darkness are still the same as they were in ’74, and kids having to go to school in the morning is still the same, and people having to go to work in the morning is still the same.”

correction

Previous versions of this post incorrectly said that President Gerald Ford signed a bill repealing permanent daylight saving time on Oct. 6, 1974. He signed it Oct. 5. This post has been corrected.

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